Daniel Dash: A fight for the keys

Football

It didn’t take long for Josh Gattis’ first task as a member of the Michigan football team’s staff to come down the pipe. Upon his hiring in January, Harbaugh invited Gattis on a two-week recruiting roadtrip.

On the trip, Harbaugh handed him the keys — literally and figuratively. Gattis sat in the driver’s seat of the sedan for the entire trip, often peering down to see his white knuckles clutching the steering wheel. In a way, Harbaugh’s choice to let Gattis drive metaphorically echoed a pillar of trust in his new offensive brainpower.

But, like this season’s schedule, the roads were anything but hazard-free.

When a snowstorm hit, Gattis claimed Harbaugh insisted on taking over as the driver. Though he was trying to make the point that his head coach isn’t above the little things, Gattis raised a valuable question: What’s going to happen when Michigan’s offense encounters trouble — like an upset scare against unranked Army — during his first season calling the shots on offense?

On Saturday afternoon, that figurative snowstorm arrived in Ann Arbor. Army took a 14-7 lead into halftime after a trio of Wolverine fumbles and a costly fourth-down defensive holding flag.

Michigan spent the entire second half either playing from behind or deadlocked in a tie. Before long, a bad first half manifested itself into an upset scare that grew more realistic with each play.

Last week, Gattis’ offense had an entirely new feel from the get-go. The up-tempo, RPO-based Pro Spread scheme was, indeed, a major departure from Harbaugh’s traditional West Coast style. Vertical threats Tarik Black and Nico Collins stood out in a system that truly felt like a breath of fresh air.

But when the Wolverines ran into a bump in the road just a week later — similar to Gattis and Harbaugh’s drive through a snowstorm — they appeared to crumble into an old shell of themselves.

While it might’ve been Gattis calling the plays from the booth, it sure had the feel of a Harbaugh offense. Michigan handed the ball to freshman running back Zach Charbonnet 33 times — a 25-carry spike from his debut against Middle Tennessee State. While Charbonnet did about as well as one could imagine with such a volume of halfback dives and inside zones, force-feeding him the ball so many times became predictable — particularly because Patterson appeared reluctant to keep the ball on the read option.

Whether by design or choice, it allowed the Black Knights to key in on stopping Charbonnet — a major component of the Wolverines’ two failed fourth-down conversions in the fourth quarter.

After flexing creativity last week, this offense returned to its bread and butter from the previous few seasons. Despite being equipped with Black and Collins, the unit didn’t air it out nearly as much as it could’ve given its upper-hand in athleticism. Even after completing 19 of 29 passes for 208 yards, it still felt as though Patterson’s performance fell short of what he’s capable of in the system Gattis advertised.

“Expectations are everyone trying make (it) as sunshine and rainbows as possible,” said senior offensive lineman Ben Bredeson. “This was good for us. It shows us what we need to work on as we head into the Big Ten season.”

Maybe expectations for production were a bit high, especially given that Michigan is still without All-Big Ten selections Donovan Peoples-Jones (WR) and Jon Runyan (OL). But from a creativity and schematic standpoint, it’s tough to find answers to questions such as why Collins saw a mere three targets. If the Wolverines had the ground game going, then so be it, but they averaged just 2.4 yards per carry as a team across 45 total attempts.

Gattis is the ray of hope this offense seemingly needed to put the ball in its star players’ hands. With its talent and athleticism, one can only imagine the offensive fireworks within the realm of possibility. Yet somehow, Michigan’s longest passing play was a 25-yard fake punt to a defensive player, making such an imagination all the more disappointing.

“We’ve got some kinks in the offense we’re still working through,” Bredeson said. “It’s a new look for us, we’re two weeks in and going through this bye week going into the Big Ten season will be good for us. We’ve seen what’s working for us, what’s not and we’ll be able to make some changes.”

If Michigan can weather the snowstorm during its bye week and offer a strong showing in Madison afterwards, it could be a season-defining turning point. But, for now, it appears to be a fight for the keys to a car that reeked of stale air on Saturday.

Dash can be reached on Twitter at @danieldash428 or via email at dashdan@umich.edu.

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